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Thoughts from the Newly-Appointed TIJS Director

Dr. Miriam Udel, Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture, was appointed the Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies on August 1, 2022.

It was a joy to gather in September and recognize the transformative decade of Eric Goldstein’s leadership of the Institute, while looking ahead to a post-pandemic future. You can read more about the event here.

One of the pleasures afforded by my new role as Judith London Evans Director is the opportunity to observe classes in Jewish Studies and witness the magic that happens in my colleagues’ classrooms. I recently sat in on a masterful advanced Hebrew class, chuckling as the students warmed up with a partnered role play exercise in which one member of each pair tried—unsuccessfully—to return an item to a Tel Aviv boutique, while the other speaker played the truculent sales clerk. Conversation flowed. After highlighting relevant vocabulary terms, the class moved on to dissecting a short piece of life writing, first mastering basic comprehension and then attending to the nuanced turns of phrase and webs of associations that made the passage so evocative.

I take courage from the knowledge that scenes like this one are being played out all over campus, as our students delve into reading Judeo-Arabic, grappling with the social and cultural history of the Holocaust and the wider history of antisemitism, encountering classical Jewish religious texts, and scrutinizing the Jewish role in developing American popular culture. We are investing more energy than ever in undergraduate education, pairing our historically strong attention to questions of curriculum—now being ably overseen by Director of Undergraduate Studies Prof. Ofra Yeglin—with a new position charged with thinking ambitiously about the undergraduate experience beyond the bounds of the classroom.

Pioneering the role of Director of Undergraduate Engagement, Prof. Ellie Schainker has convened a committee that will think systemically about how to create vibrant intellectual experiences among clusters of thematically related classes, including guest speakers and experiential learning opportunities. The first theme, to be highlighted in calendar year 2023, is Gender and Reproduction. Expect to hear more about guest lectures and field trips that will tie into this theme and create synergies between our students’ learning and faculty research. Another undergraduate engagement initiative is Prof. Schainker’s spring course on Eastern European Jewry, which will be enhanced by a ten-day trip to Poland in May. Participants will draw on their deep learning in the course as they visit key sites in the millennium-old civilization created by Jews in Poland, reckon with the destruction visited by the Holocaust, and think critically about efforts toward memorialization and related activism in contemporary Poland. Thanks to the partnership of our generous donors, this travel experience will be heavily subsidized for participants.

Fall semester is bustling with planned events, including many exciting speakers on campus. Foremost among these is Prof. George J. Sánchez of the University of Southern California, who will deliver this year’s Rothschild Lecture on Nov. 7, discussing Jewish involvement in the multiethnic Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Institute’s ongoing seminar series will bring Vanderbilt’s Prof. Lenn Goodman to our campus to consider what Maimonides learned from Islamic philosophy. Several intriguing lectures are being offered in conjunction with courses. At the invitation of Pazit Kahlon-Shelnut, Gil Hovav, great-grandson of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, will discuss his forebear’s efforts to revitalize the Hebrew language over a century ago.  On. Nov. 2, Emory doctoral alumna Dr. Sarah Willen, now of the University of Connecticut, will make her way back to campus at the invitation of Prof. Sa’ed Atshan to address "Who Belongs in Israel? Ethnographic Perspectives on Jewish-Israeli Migrant Rights Activism in Tel Aviv." Dr. Shayna Weiss of Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies will likewise visit Prof. Atshan’s class on Nov. 14 to speak “On Israeli Pop Music.”

After the isolation of the pandemic, we are enhancing our efforts to listen deeply to our students about where they see—and imagine—Jewish Studies fitting into their intellectual and human trajectories, at Emory and beyond. The executive leadership of the institute recently convened a focus group lunch for some of our most committed students, and we expect to create many more opportunities for listening and encounter. They wish to “connect, only connect”—and faculty harbor this wish as well. We are brainstorming around some initiatives that will integrate deep connection, vigorous scholarly exchange, and the nurturance of intellectual community further into the structure of the Tam Institute. As I said at our Leadership Celebration event in September, if you know of any restless philanthropists looking to collaborate on some really creative new initiatives on the Jewish Studies landscape, please send them my way. In the meantime, every time you attend one of our events on campus or virtually, engage with our faculty’s scholarship, or discuss with one of our undergraduate students what they are learning in Jewish Studies courses at Emory, you are partnering with us in advancing the aims of the Institute. It turns out to be a whole lot easier and more rewarding than returning a sweater to a shop in Tel Aviv.          


Published 10/12/22